SEP 20, 2018 5 AM
The Writing on the Wall
The completion of Off the Wall, an inspiring 1,200-foot mural on Charlotte Avenue
by Erica Ciccarone
In 2014, Tinsley Dempsey started pounding the pavement. All she had was a bold idea. She had just moved to Nashville from Atlanta, and a 1,200-foot wall that separated Charlotte Avenue from a lot full of storage units looked to her like a blank canvas.
Dempsey made some business cards and got moving. Calling her project Off the Wall, she approached the lot’s owner. She told everyone her idea — from government agencies to Lyft drivers — and slowly but surely got local sponsors and partnered with nonprofits to make the project a joint effort. Dempsey got local outreach organizations including Room In The Inn, Oasis Center and TN Donates Life involved, and she welcomed businesses on board — as varied as local coffee empire Bongo Java and presenting sponsor Buckingham Foundation, the philanthropic arm of developers Buckingham Companies.
Four years later, the wall is full, with 14 murals painted almost exclusively by locals, among them Brandon Donahue, Tess Erlenborn and Sarah Liz Tate. This week, Off the Wall will celebrate the wall’s completion with a party that will feature food trucks, drinks, music and live painting, plus reps from a bevy of nonprofits and local neighborhood businesses.
It’s notable that not all the artists on the wall typically work on a large scale. A standout piece by Julia Martin features a surrealist park scene with a woman’s face in the foreground. It’s vibrant and sad, like she’s melting into the wind. Omari Booker’s piece shows a young boy and girl sitting cross-legged and exuding a sense of closeness. According to the artist, he and his sister spent every summer at the Hadley Park Community Center down the street. She died in 2002, but you don’t need to know that to appreciate Booker’s deeply felt tribute.
Just as moving is a painting of activist, artist and Those Darlins frontwoman Jessi Zazu. Zazu died in September 2017 at age 28, and she left a massive hole in Nashville’s arts and culture ecosystem — as well as in the lives of those who knew her. According to Dempsey, Zazu lived blocks from the wall, and on her way to the hospital for cancer treatment, she’d tell her mother that she’d love to contribute to it. So when Jessi Zazu Inc., a foundation that memorializes her legacy and work, reached out to Dempsey, she knew it was meant to be. Designed by artist Billy Lilly and painted by Duncan Shea and Jessi’s brother Emmett Wariner, the mural shows Nashville’s own darlin’ with a fearless expression on her face, a curl of hair falling across her forehead, red lips pursed in a smirk. It’s larger than life — just like Jessi was. The foundation is printing T-shirts emblazoned with the image, and they’ll be for sale to benefit the foundation at Off the Wall’s launch.
Some murals in the city signal a kind of status — a New Nashville that’s out to get the attention of cities with a more iconic visual art presence. Dempsey’s commitment to local artists and her partnership with neighborhood organizations, businesses and nonprofits feels homegrown in a way that both elevates the arts and stays connected to the city’s roots.
“I’m not working for Instagram here,” says Dempsey. “I’m looking for community.”